Conversation with John Thole, Tournament organiser in the Africa Lichess Events WhatsApp group

Africa Chess Net : John is here and we’ll start the conversation shortly. While we wait, I am playing a song called “Positive Energy” from the late supercommittee, a notable jazz musician and artist. A wise man once said that chess, like music, has the power to make men happy. Music certainly makes me happy, but now we will put it aside and begin our conversation with John.

John Thole, prolific tournament organiser of the Africa Lichess Events WhatsApp group

John, firstly, I want to thank you for making yourself available for this conversation. I know we’ve been talking about having an interview, so I’m really excited that you’ve availed yourself. Thank you so much for that.

JT: You’re welcome. 

Africa Chess Net:  I wanted to have this conversation with you because of your activity in the Africa Lichess group. I really appreciate the tournaments you have been organising for a long time. I thought, “This guy is super committed.” 

I realised I don’t actually know much about you, John, apart from the fact that you are a fellow member of the group and organise chess events. I was just looking you up on Facebook to find out a bit more about you. Would you be able to tell us about yourself, as much as you’re comfortable sharing?

JT: Okay, I’ll give you some brief background. I have a family, two children. I’m a retired banker (in Zambia). During my school days, I used to play chess, though not very competitively, just for fun. I avoided playing at a competitive level as I felt it interfered with my school programme. However, I’ve remained an active player both over the board and online.

When I got online, I developed an interest and felt I could add value to chess players by organising tournaments, linking them up to have a high level of activity. I observed that some people were having challenges accessing over-the-board chess due to availability of equipment. With the advancement of technology and online chess becoming more accessible, I noticed it was quite user-friendly. It was easier for me to link up with local players, and eventually, someone connected me to the Africa group, where I expanded my activity.

From that perspective, I’ve made interesting observations regarding responses, levels of participation, and what drives players to get involved or not. I remain passionate about finding ways to grow the sport and facilitate more player interaction. There are still challenges in this area, such as when people want to get involved in tournaments. These are some things we can perhaps help each other look at to provide opportunities, especially for professional players, to have access to playing against different opponents. I think it helps them to expose themselves. I’ll stop there for now.

Africa Chess Net:  Thank you very much for that, John. I was curious about when you joined the Africa Lichess WhatsApp group and started organising chess tournaments. Do you remember when you joined, when you started, and what inspired you to keep going to this day?

JT: I think it was around 2017-2018 when I must have joined. I can’t remember the exact date, but it should be around then that I became very active. It started with organising tournaments locally here in Zambia. A few guys who were connected to the Africa Lichess group linked me up, and that’s how I joined. I think my first contact was Slatter.

Africa Chess Net: Zlatter from Nigeria?

JT: Yes, I think he is the one I contacted first. Then we started doing things together here and there.

Africa Chess Net:  When did you organise your first tournament on Lichess? Do you remember it and what was that experience like?

JT: It should have been around 2017. It was a local one. It gave me a lot of excitement because I saw some interesting responses from the players. It also helped me get to know many Zambian players. When I started organising, I secured some funds which the players competed for. That attracted a lot of players and it started growing bit by bit from there.

Africa Chess Net:  My guess is you’ve probably organised more than 100 tournaments by now.

JT: 100 is too low a number. I think I can check on Lichess. We should get over 2000 tournaments I’ve organised since around 2017-2018. The one which has been mostly consistent is the 1+0 bullet. I organise it almost every day, skipping only when there are challenges. On average, it runs daily. Then there’s the 3+0 event, which we now call “Fair Play”.

Africa Chess Net:  That’s a lot of tournaments – 2000. I wonder if there’s anyone else in the group who has organised as many as you.

JT:  I’m not sure, but that would be interesting to check.

Africa Chess Net:  John, you’ve been involved with online chess for some years now, and then there’s over-the-board chess. What is your preference and why?

JT: Well, online is my preference because it gives me more enjoyment. I’m able to reach out to and play against so many players, as opposed to over the board. With over-the-board chess, there are many issues in accessing many players. You need a central venue and logistics to meet. I find online to be more appealing.

Africa Chess Net:  Let’s talk about professional chess. We don’t have many professional players in Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, or in general. It’s a very demanding profession.

What are your thoughts on playing chess as a passion or hobby versus playing professionally? Anything you might want to share on that?

JT: Firstly, in terms of numbers, my view is that we have many players we might even consider professional, except there is a lack of consistency in their activity, with financial resources mainly being the limiting factor. We have so many players, but the activity is very limited due to finances.

For example, whenever there is a tournament in Zambia, you will find a very high number of participants from the district or town where it is held. However, when you look at those able to travel to participate, there is always very low attendance. The same happens for regional tournaments in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia – we are neighbours, but whenever there are big tournaments in these countries, very few of our players are able to travel and participate, not because they don’t want to, but due to financial limitations.

When I look at professional chess versus passion, yes, we have a few players with that real passion who go to great extents to ensure they play. That is quite encouraging. One would wish there could be proper sponsorship in place to support these players. If that was available, they could achieve much more than they are able to at the moment.

Then there’s the issue of money versus passion. I feel when a player has passion, they will always be there playing, regardless of whether they have money or not. You have another category who go in there purely chasing money. This category, I think their commitment is somewhat shaky because they only make themselves available when there’s money. I feel this same category of players doesn’t help much in building the sport, as their availability is conditional on money being there.

For those with passion, I feel they do more in terms of building the sport. They will always be available and through that, they inspire many more people to join and stay in chess. That’s my take.

Africa Chess Net:  Thank you very much for that. Coming to the Africa Lichess Events WhatsApp group, what would you say is your vision for that group? Where would you like to see it, say, five years from now?

JT: What I would love to see from that group is if it can acquire some form of support, even from the continental body. It can really help. If you look at chess now at the international level, as much as we have challenges with cheating when it comes to online play, I think we must admit that technology has come far. Africa is somewhat lagging behind in terms of participation. We really need to encourage our players to make use of technology because that way, it exposes them a lot more compared to what is happening.

At the Africa level, I feel we need to be supportive of each other as organisations from different countries. If you look at the Africa group, Africa has so many countries. I don’t know if it’s because of language barriers, but I feel the number of active countries in that group is too low. I can maybe mention Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, South Africa, Malawi, Botswana – in these countries, we have Iceland as well. We have a number of players active in that group, but looking at Africa, we can do much better.

The organisational aspect of the group itself needs to maybe be realigned so that there must be an aspect of wanting it to grow further, bring in proper contacts from many other countries. When there is activity in that group, we can have high levels of participation. That way, we might even be able to attract organisations who can come up and support the activities. We can start from somewhere if we put our heads together.

Africa Chess Net: If somebody wanted to join the group and asked you why they should join Africa Lichess Events, what’s so special about this group, what would you say?

JT: Well, I think the special thing about this group is it’s brought together the top players in African chess. If you look at the activity that goes on in the group, you can see the profile of the players, how active they are. When there are serious tournaments going on, the following, the reviews, the comments from top players – it gives you a lot of excitement and you get to know that for sure, there’s some following going on with the sport.

Africa Chess Net: Thank you very much, John. I know I promised you a short conversation. I see we are almost at 20 minutes.

JT: We can go on, I still have time.

Africa Chess Net: Thank you for your generous spirit in terms of time. Now, if the group was to get sponsorship, what would be your focus for that sponsorship? Let’s say today, Africa Lichess Events secures a good deal of money in sponsorship, what would be your priority?

JT: Number one, it would be the organisational aspect, the leadership of the group. It should be one which has the view of growing the sport across countries in Africa, inspiring players to develop, and having some good inclination to the professional players so they can utilise that opportunity to improve their game.

We really need to step up and see a higher level of competition at the Africa level right now. I appreciate the high level of dominance by the Egyptians, but I feel there must be some serious level of challenge mounted by other countries now. That way, it can really help build the sport. The Egyptians are doing a great job, and if you look at the numbers going up the ranks, I feel other countries need to do something to step up.

Africa Chess Net: The Egyptians have been dominating African chess for a very long time.

JT: Yes, so it means there must be something they are doing right which we may not be doing, or they may have an advantage which other countries may not have.

Africa Chess Net: When I interviewed one of the different players, I could just tell these guys are super committed to the game.

Now, here’s a tricky question for you, John. I have observed the performance of some of the players in the group when they go to over-the-board tournaments. What are your thoughts on how online chess can affect someone’s over-the-board ability?

JT: Well, with online chess, I think the aspect which might have some effect is the shorter time games. Over-the-board tournaments normally have long time games. When you look at players, some have strengths in one format and not both. It’s rare to find players who have real high strength in both aspects.

The online part also has an element of how good one is at interacting with a gadget. Over the board, the question is how often they play games at that level. Online, you can get there anytime – you’re just at home, relaxing, you can be playing. At the end of the day, you’ll find you have more accessible online games. I think that influences the strengths the players might be showing.

Africa Chess Net:  One of the last questions I’m going to ask you – I know you’ve been talking about bullet, very short games, and then the fair play 3-minute time control. What are your thoughts on longer games, say rapid or even longer than that?

JT: Organising 5+0, 10+0, 15+0  (Time controls) – to start with, the turnout is very poor. Then players complain about suspicion of cheating by many when you stage long time games online. What you find as a general observation is that players who are generally weak, even in terms of rating, when you play them online in long time games, even just 5 minutes, the quality of play tends to be something else. They exhibit a lot of strength which doesn’t even match their rating. It becomes a challenge. You can’t tell if there is an element of cheating or what, but there is that general suspicion, and it can’t be ignored.

Africa Chess Net: So cheating could be an issue if the games become much longer than they are.

JT: Unfairness is greater, no doubt.

Africa Chess Net: Okay. And Chess960, any thoughts on that? I don’t think I’ve seen that being played in the group.

JT: I haven’t paid much attention to it myself. There was a time when I wanted to push in that direction, but I didn’t manage. We’ve seen our colleagues in Nigeria very good at that. They do well anyway when it comes to Chess960.

If we were to popularise it, I think at a personal level, like in Zambia, it would just require raising a few funds here and there, then organising a few tournaments in succession. We can create opportunities where a good number of players can pay attention to it when there’s a little bit of money. Through that, once they get to know the variations, they can participate. I think apart from Nigeria, I haven’t seen the other variations being played quite often.

Africa Chess Net: Well, John, we have come to the end of our conversation, but I’m so grateful to you for making time to chat to Africa Chess News. Thank you so much for the time, John. We’re going to make the conversation available to those who missed out on it.

JT: I’m so grateful for giving me an opportunity for this interview. I feel humbled and I respect that.

Africa Chess Net: Thank you for all the hard work. Please keep it up. You have done such a great job in continuing to grow our game and get more people involved in the game of chess.

JT: That’s impactful and inspiring. Thank you so much.

Africa Chess Net: Thank you, and good night. To those who have been listening, thank you for your time as well in tuning in. Cheers

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